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MSNBC was launched on July 15, 1996. The first show, which was anchored by Jodi Applegate, broadcast a lineup of news, interviews, and opinions. During the day, rolling news coverage continued with The Contributors, a show that featured Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, as well as interactive programming coordinated by Applegate, John Gibson and John Seigenthaler. Stories were generally longer and more detailed than the stories running on CNN at the time. NBC also highlighted their broadcast connections by airing stories direct from the NBC network affiliates, along with breaking news coverage from the same sources.
Gradually, MSNBC began to put more emphasis on politics. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found in 2007 after a seven-year survey of cable channels that “MSNBC is moving to make politics a brand, with a large dose of opinion and personality.” In January 2001, Mike Barnicle got a show on MSNBC, but it was canceled in June 2001 due to high production costs. In June, in a sign of continuing trouble at MSNBC, then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that he would not have started MSNBC if he knew then what he knows now (referencing the longstanding troubles attracting viewers). After the September 11, 2001 attacks, MSNBC served as an outlet for NBC News to provide up-to-the-minute coverage, in contrast to broadcast NBC’s longer stories. CNBC and CNBC Europe, with little financial news to report, ran MSNBC for many hours of the day following the attacks. The year also boosted the profile of Ashleigh Banfield, who was present during the collapse of Building 7 while covering the World Trade Center on September 11. Her Region In Conflict program capitalized on her newfound celebrity and showcased exclusive interviews from Afghanistan.
MSNBC turned “patriotic” in the aftermath of 9/11, calling itself “America’s NewsChannel” and hiring opinionated hosts like Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue, Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson; however, ratings declined following this branding makeover. On December 23, 2005, it was announced that NBC Universal would acquire an additional 32% share of the television channel from Microsoft, solidifying its control over television operations and allowing NBC to further consolidate MSNBC’s backroom operations with NBC News and its other cable properties. (The news website msnbc.com remained a separate joint venture between Microsoft and NBC for another seven years.) NBC would have the option, which it exercised, to buy the remaining 18% share of the television from Microsoft after two years. MSNBC, along with other U.S. news networks, had been criticized for having a distorted and biased media coverage of the Iraq War.
Then from late 2005 onwards the network began to attract liberal and progressive viewers when host Keith Olbermann began critiquing and satirizing conservative media commentators on his program Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Olbermann especially focused his attention on Fox News Channel and its main primetime commentator, Bill O’Reilly.
On June 7, 2006, Rick Kaplan resigned as president of MSNBC, after holding the post for two years. Following the announcement, it was announced on June 12, 2006, that Dan Abrams, a nine-year veteran of MSNBC and NBC News, had been named general manager of MSNBC, effective immediately. NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin would oversee MSNBC, while also continuing to oversee NBC News’ Today, and Abrams would report to Griffin.
On June 29, 2006, Abrams announced a revamp to MSNBC’s early-primetime and primetime schedule. On July 10, Tucker (formerly The Situation with Tucker Carlson) started airing at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET (taking over Abrams’ old timeslot), while Rita Cosby’s Live & Direct was taken off the schedule. Cosby was instead given the role of primary anchor for MSNBC Investigates at 10 and 11 p.m. ET, a new program that took over Cosby and Carlson’s timeslots. According to the press release, MSNBC Investigates promised to “…complement MSNBC’s existing programming by building on [the channel’s] library of award winning documentaries.” The move to taped programming during 10 and 11 p.m. was likely a result of the success that MSNBC saw with their Friday “experiment” of replacing all primetime programming with taped specials. On September 24, 2007, Abrams announced that he would leave the position of General Manager to focus on his 9:00 p.m. ET talk show, “Live With Dan Abrams”. Oversight of MSNBC is now provided by Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC.